Once in the long ago when all the animals lived in villages and talked together, a time came when no rain fell for many days, and the animals suffered greatly from thirst.
When the dry time was over, the lion called the animals together. “We must make a plan,” he said, “so we will never again have to suffer or die from thirst.”
“We could move to a different country,” suggested the ape.
“Too far! Too far!” complained the smaller ones. “We cannot travel that far with our short legs.”
Then the snake spoke. “We could try to sleep through the dryness and—”
“That would never suit us,” chimed in the other animals, plainly irritated.
So the jackal and the hyena talked together. “Let us dig a deep pool to hold water from the rainy times,” they said. “Then in the dry days we would have water to drink.”
“A good plan,” the lion agreed, nodding his head. “Let’s begin to dig at once. And since the hyena and the jackal thought of the plan, the hyena may dig first and the jackal will dig last.”
After the hyena dug his share, each of the other animals dug in turn. At last the big hole was almost finished. “Now it’s the jackal’s turn,” said the animals. But the jackal was nowhere to be seen. Since they couldn’t find him, the other animals quickly finished the digging.
The rains came and filled the big pool with sweet, clear water. “No one but those who have dug may drink from this pool,” declared the lion, and all of the other animals agreed.
All this while the jackal had been hiding near the pool, and he heard what the diggers said. So when the long dry season came again, the jackal wakened very early each morning and went to drink from the clear pool. And because no one ever saw him, he became even bolder and went into the water to swim. This made the water muddy. When the animals came to drink later in the morning, they were angry. “Who did this?” they demanded. “Who muddied the water?” But no one knew.
Then the tortoise responded, “If you’ll cover my shell with sticky beeswax, I’ll watch by the pool all night and catch the rascal who muddied our water.” So, with sticky wax smeared all over his dark shell, the tortoise settled at the edge of the pool to watch through the night.
In the morning the jackal came to drink. “Ah! A nice stepping stone,” he said, and he put his two front paws on the shell and bent his head to drink. But when he tried to leave he found that his paws were stuck fast in the wax on the tortoise’s shell. “Let me go!” he cried. “You can’t play tricks on me!”
The tortoise began to move.
“Let me go or I’ll kick your shell to pieces with my strong hind legs,” cried the jackal.
“Do as you please,” replied the tortoise.
The jackal kicked hard, and then both of his hind paws were also stuck fast to the tortoise’s shell. “If you don’t let me go I’ll bite you into little pieces,” cried the jackal.
“Try it!” the tortoise answered.
The jackal bit at the shell and his jaws, too, stuck fast in the wax. Then the tortoise slowly crawled along to the lion’s house with the jackal stuck fast to his shell.
When the animals learned who had muddied the water and who had been drinking without having done his share of the work on the pool, they were angry.
“Tomorrow he must die!” they shouted. The lion nodded. “But we will allow him to choose the way of his death.”
All night long the jackal tried to think of a way he could escape. When morning came he said, “I have seen a monkey kill a rat by swinging him by the tail and dashing him against a tree. I choose to be killed this way.”
“If that is your wish,” said the lion, “the hyena will swing you by the tail around and around and dash you against a tree!”
Now it happened that the wily jackal saved all the fat from the meat he had been given for his last meal, and with it he greased his tail to the very tip. So when the hyena grasped him by the tail and began to swing him around and around, he could not hold tightly. The jackal’s slippery tail went right through the hyena’s paws, and the jackal landed on the ground and went streaking away as fast as he could go.
The hyena and the other animals were so surprised that they didn’t have wits enough to spring after the jackal and give chase until after he had disappeared. The jackal never came back, and many years passed, with the pool always holding clear water for the animals to drink in dry times.
But the tortoise never forgot how the jackal had troubled the water. Even to this day it is said that tortoises can be found guarding the pools of Africa from intruders.